Does Calling for the Pope’s Arrest Betray the Skeptic Movement?

The day before yesterday, the UK’s Times Online put up an article with the headline “Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI.”  This set off a flurry of posts, especially on Twitter, by skeptics on the issue.  Some thought this was great; others thought it was terrible.  As it turns out, the headline was, unsurprisingly, a misstatement of Dawkins’ actual involvement in a plan by a group of human rights lawyers who are hoping to have the Pope arrested because of his involvement in a systematic cover-up of the rape of children by Catholic priests.  Dawkins clarified this here.

What is so odd about this story is that many members of the skeptic community, some prominent, worked to show their discomfort at being associated with this activity.  The general feeling seems to be that it would be detrimental to the skeptic “movement” if skeptics endorsed the attempt to have the Pope arrested as it would smack of something like religious intolerance.  There is a strong wing of the skeptic community that wants to put as much distance between themselves and the “new atheists” as possible for fear that being seen as atheists will damage attempts at social outreach.  Of course, not everyone feels this way.  Rebecca Watson makes her stance on the issue very clear here when she says,

So is this effort going to somehow hurt the “skeptical movement?” You may notice that I use the quotation marks here, because I can’t bring myself to seriously consider a movement supposedly based on the defense of rationality that would turn its back on children who are raped by men they trust because those men claim a supernatural being gives them power, wisdom, and the keys to eternal life with a direct line to God’s ear. If we discovered that a world-famous psychic was leading a secretive cabal that protected child rapists, would we be silent? If a world-famous faith healer was using his heavenly persona to molest kids, would we say that it’s not our fight? You might. I couldn’t.

I’m gonna have to go with Rebecca on this one.  I absolutely think skeptics should take a stand on this position, and it should be that the Catholic Church should be held accountable for their systematic cover-up and protection from prosecution of priest who raped children.

There are two questions at issue, here.  First, is it appropriate for skeptics as a group to get involved in human rights issues?  Second, it is the place of skeptics as skeptics to address the issue of the Church’s active participation in the cover-up of child rape by Church priests?

The answer to the first question seems obvious:  of course.  Lots of organizations involve themselves in efforts to protect and improve their community, even when such activity falls outside any sort of “mandate” about the express function of those organizations.  The example I’ve been using since yesterday is that of cheerleaders.  The express function of cheerleaders is to cheer, engender school spirit, and support their school and their school’s sports teams.  Yet, cheerleaders often do much more than this.  They are often involved in going to retirement homes to visit and bring food to the elderly.  They often have drives to collect food items to deliver to shelters for the poor and homeless.  They do all sorts of things that go beyond the specific function for which their group was created.  That said, how odd would we find it if someone inside or outside such an organization stood up to criticize that group for these actions?  It would be nothing less than shocking if some cheerleader told her peers it was inappropriate to collect toys for children at Christmas merely because it was beyond the mandate of cheering.  Yet, this is exactly the kind of argument that is being presented by those skeptics who suggest that skeptics as a group should refrain from participating in or voicing support for any action to seek justice for some large, though unknown, number of children who have been raped by those whose job it was to protect and guide them.

I cannot help but notice some level of something like hypocrisy on this issue.  No one complained when SHARE (Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort) collected money for aid in Haiti, for Katrina victims, or for those who suffered because of the Asian tsunami.  Certainly, organizations such as the Center for Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and Skeptic magazine, among others, are examples of skeptics as a group collectively acting in a way that is well beyond the purview of their charters.  Even so, no one stood up and exclaimed, “No, we should not give money to Haiti.  We are skeptics, not humanitarians.”  Indeed, had anyone done so, I expect they would have been roundly criticized for expressing such a bizarre opinion.  It is simply the case that groups often involve themselves in community activism, regardless of their primary reason for existence.  As such, it is just a very strange sort of argument to suggest that skeptics as a group are prohibited from supporting an action seeking justice on behalf of children who have been raped only to have the rapists protected by their parent organization, an organization who exists for the purpose of doing things like protecting children.  It looks to me that anyone complaining about that is worried about something else.

As to question two from above, I also think it is appropriate for skeptics to address this issue as skeptics.  This is for a couple of reasons.  First, skeptics are people engaged in the practice and promotion of critical thinking.  Critical thinking is most needed when the details of some particular issue are messy enough that it is hard for people to tease apart the big problems from their own prejudices about the issue.  It would be difficult to imagine an issue that is more entangled than a scandal involving the organization most responsible, in the eyes of many, for the promotion of their god’s will.  Even worse, the issue at hand, charging the Pope, involves accusing someone who is supposed to have a direct line to God Himself with actively harming those who are arguably the least among us, those most in need of protection, when that same god said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).  It is simply difficult for many to reconcile that the person they believe speaks with the Voice of God can be the same person accused of the actions spelled out so clearly in article after article documenting the Pope’s callous and awful actions.  As such, this is a time when those who have worked to sharpen their critical thinking skills are most needed to pry apart the actions of God’s mouthpiece on Earth from the actions of the man.

But I would be remiss if I did not point out the obvious, and is the elephant in the room, that the reason the Church and the Pope feel so emboldened is that they believe they have some supernatural authority that makes them exempt from the laws of man.  There is just no getting around that.  Further, the reason that so many people who are not themselves in the administration of the Church have been willing to give the Church a pass on raping kids and covering up that rape is because they too think the Church has some supernatural privilege that excludes them from dealing with “petty” matters like human laws.  That makes the supernatural character of this issue a key component.  What is it that skeptics do?  It looks to me like examining claims about the supernatural is a big component of their activity.  Moreover, they often do so expressly because of ethical concerns resulting from supernatural claims.  Taking those things together, examination of supernatural claims because of concerns about the ethical implications of said claims, it looks to me that there is good reason for skeptics in their roles as skeptics to look at this issue.

Skepticism is compelling because we realize that bad arguments and blind appeals to authority are dangerous.  Not only is it acceptable for skeptics to criticize the Church’s heinous cover-up, it’s the right thing to do.  That’s one of the things that makes skeptical inquiry valuable.

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11 Responses to “Does Calling for the Pope’s Arrest Betray the Skeptic Movement?”

  1. James Sweet Says:

    Excellently articulated explanation for why skeptics should speak out about this. Thanks!

  2. Jason Says:

    I second James comment. I’m adding your site to my feed reader.

  3. Jim Says:

    Thanks for the support, guys.

  4. CW Says:

    Regarding your SHARE analogy, isn’t it possible that part of the motivation for skeptics donating through this channel was because of an uncertainty of big relief organizations’ capacity to distribute donations efficiently and properly? The Red Cross has gotten bad press in the past (specifically regarding Katrina).

    And also, perhaps some may have wanted to utilize SHARE to help make a point that secular people are just as charitable as theists (I know that Dawkins, Hitchens, and others brought this point up many times during the Haiti relief effort), and thus wanted a specific identifiable channel for illustrating this point?

    In both of these instances, couldn’t you argue that there were intrinsic skeptical motives at work?

    • Jim Says:

      In regards to the first question, I see little reason to think that some new organization is going to be better at distributing funds that those who have experience. Regardless, that does not seem to be a “skeptical” motive at all, at least as the purists are attempting to describe the word. No claims of the paranormal were at issue, no defense of science was needed, etc.
      As to the second issue, a desire to be seen as equally charitable as others does not seem to be “skeptical,” either, and for the same reasons. Again, there are no questions of paranormal claims, no issues of scientific authenticity, or anything else of that nature.
      If the concern is that skeptic organizations must adhere to some skeptical mandate that requires they only address questions related to the paranormal or scientific sufficiency and authenticity, then it follows that no skeptic organization should support something like SHARE.

  5. CW Says:

    “I also think it is appropriate for skeptics to address this issue as skeptics.”

    Do you think this issue has surpassed a new demarcation point, in which the skeptical response needs to be more vigorous?

    If so, can you tell me how this issue is ‘skeptically’ different than the established skeptical repudiation of other Pope/Vatican/Catholic doctrine – such as banning contraceptives that could save lives in AIDS-plagued regions of Africa, opposition to abortion (even in case of major health risks), and opposition to medical research like stemcell research?

    If not, then why is it now that Dawkins and Watson call for the Pope’s arrest? Is it because there are actual laws that are broken? And thus, it’s not a more of a “skeptical” issue, but rather a judicial one?

    • Jim Says:

      Do you think this issue has surpassed a new demarcation point, in which the skeptical response needs to be more vigorous?

      Not really. I think the responses of skeptics are, in general, very vigorous.

      If so, can you tell me how this issue is ’skeptically’ different than the established skeptical repudiation of other Pope/Vatican/Catholic doctrine – such as banning contraceptives that could save lives in AIDS-plagued regions of Africa, opposition to abortion (even in case of major health risks), and opposition to medical research like stemcell research?

      I don’t know that it’s different from the Pope’s claim that condoms promote the spread of HIV/AIDS (I actually talked about that here), though it is different from the claims that abortion and stem cell research are morally wrong. This is because the latter two are moral claims that are not functions of physical facts.

      If not, then why is it now that Dawkins and Watson call for the Pope’s arrest? Is it because there are actual laws that are broken? And thus, it’s not a more of a “skeptical” issue, but rather a judicial one?

      I’m guessing it’s because, prior to the trip the Pope is taking to the Uk where both Dawkins and Watson reside, there was no opportunity to push for such an arrest, along with the fact that it is only recently that the overwhelming amount of evidence of the Pope’s personal and active participation in the cover-up of these rapes has been presented.
      While I think it is entirely appropriate for skeptics to address factual claims made by the Pope on issues such as use of condoms in combating HIV/AIDS, that stuff has not risen to the level of breaking any specific laws. Systematically protecting pedophiles does. Hence, it is now appropriate to call for his arrest while earlier it was not. I guess I would think this was obvious. If laws are broken by individuals under investigation by skeptics, it seems reasonable to support the prosecution of those criminals. If not, then not.

      • CW Says:

        “though it is different from the claims that abortion and stem cell research are morally wrong. This is because the latter two are moral claims that are not functions of physical facts.”

        Unless you think that those claims about when life begins or a soul enters the embryo – are pseudo-science? And I believe many skeptics would find these claims to be relevant to skepticism?

        • Jim Says:

          I absolutely agree that the existence of some soul that interacts with our body is an empirical claim which skepticism can investigate. I’ve pointed that out often myself when others tried to claim that they knew liberal theists who didn’t have any beliefs that science could touch since all they believed in was an afterlife of some sort. So, one could certainly address such “facts” used in support of some moral claims.

  6. Arrest the Pope for his crimes, not for any cause « Lousy Canuck Says:

    […] have taken it upon themselves to beat the drum and rally behind Dawkins, in at least one case as extracurricular activities outside the field of skepticism. Some others feel that allying too closely with filthy dirty atheists will tar them amongst the […]


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